“Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas…”
My novels all describe “systems” of various degrees of derangement. The plot consists of a description of the system, and the end comes when the description is complete and/or disintegration sets in or takes place. I “hear” the novels: a voice arrives in a paragraph, or even just a line — the case of Log. Sometimes there has been a pause between the first intimations of the voice and when I really began to pay attention to it. For the first four novels, the experience was fairly uniform: five weeks of seven-days-a-week writing, mainly mornings, and then a year of working over unrealized sections, usually endings. When I was young, an ideal was to write books each as different from the other as possible. I now see this as an interesting illusion.
—from an interview with Stanley Crawford at Powell’s Books
One of Gordon Lish’s favourites.
Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
by Stanley Crawford
The name is Mrs Unguentine. I was not the one born with it, he was. We were married by telephone when the great cable was laid across the ocean floor well before the weather turned so foul; it was the thing to do then, the thing to do indeed. Some high priest on a party line made us man and wife or at least did consecrate the phone line, the electrodes, or whatever. And made me drop all my names, maiden, first and middle, the result being Mrs Unguentine.
Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas, but Unguentine–now dead after a bloody eventless life–turned out to be a ferocious bastard who beat me within an inch of my life everywhere we sighted land, not because of me, not for land, but for drink, he with his bent for alcohol up to the very last moment when his grey lips touched the blue sea for the final time, moment of his death. Suicide. So I sailed that ship, I sailed it every nautical inch of our marriage.
What’s worse, as he went overboard, bottle clutched to his lips and probably already dead of a rotten liver as he toppled into the froth, what did I see in his hip pocket? The pocket that concealed a flabby backside? What did I see? All our navigation charts rolled up, and so down they went with him to the bottom and there I was, left alone in the middle of a nasty squall far from all land. He beat me one last time before he died, though limply. I should have known. Not a scrap of land in sight. And now I wonder why I even bother, this three-thousand-and-no-doubt-somethingth-time it must be, with Unguentine, ferocious bastard, catamaran, alcohol, beating, blessed seas, suicide, the sails, the how and the where, for why multiply anything any more and heap it all higher, heap and clog?
Yet the thought for example that the miseries of my life with Unguentine might have been brought on by myself as in catamaran, lonely seas, wife, the first and fatal swig at the bottle, and so on. Yelling at him across the wind as he leaned against the tiller, pipe or cigar or baby’s rattle clenched between his teeth, for all he wanted was the sea and the depths while I cried for company, my old and dear so long-lost friends, while I poured him another drink and he drank himself into visions of forever setting sail across oceans unbefouled by man and where women knitted sails or nets or clothes, and sang, not talked, sang with the wind and with the slicing of the prows through aqua glazes. Unguentine was a man who grew nauseous upon land, he could not walk upon a solid, unmoving surface without trembling at the thought it might all crack and crumble into bits and drop into some great hole with the dust of beaten mattresses. His terrestrial asthma. And no wonder, for what was then called land, that shambles, was a sorry surface unfit for the conduct of anything but a harrowing traffic. But I kept him on land, I forced him to skip rope. He did. Our last vessel was a barge, a barge such as is used to tow garbage out to sea with. It was the only way I would go to sea again, I said. We got the thing for a song, garbage and all, rot, stink and a flock of squabbling seagulls. We had the garbage covered with earth and planted trees and flowers, and there was a great canvas with brass fittings to cover it all up from the wind and the waves, and thus we set sail upon a course that kept us to temperate zones, for the sake of my plants. And many times we were halted by hostile navies who had never seen such a sight; once we were claimed by an impoverished government which sought an island cheap by virtue and confiscation. While I watered my plants, Unguentine drank. On some equator or other I added dogs and a cat who ate fish and provided fecal matter for my garden which came to flourish to such a degree that it grew impenetrable in places, while vine-reinforced leafy boughs overhung virtually the whole barge and we could go for days on end without seeing each other, amused at our respective ends by visitations of uncanny birds. I deceived myself into thinking he was happy. Was it not, after all, the year he cracked the Joke? And that was even the year he said he’d rather not do much talking. I had the cat and the dogs, remember. I was not listening very attentively. His unfortunate end therefore took me by surprise two days later, and right after the plunge–the same, bottle, grey lips, froth seas–immediately after his plunge I rushed to the pilot-house in the interests of keeping the barge on a true course despite my grief and against the possibility of some scuttling going on. I had never visited the pilot-house before. My surprise and shock can then be imagined when I flung open the door and stumbled inside and grasped the pilot wheel and peered through the windows ahead or aft or fore or whatever, forever confused by those silly nautical terms and hating the hairy men who used them, smirking. But of course nothing was visible through the windows but the thick vegetation of the garden, that is, Unguentine had been steering all these years with no idea of what he was steering towards; and as I was now. The motto of his death was simple, as inscribed on a business card tucked between the glass and frame of the window before the pilot wheel: ‘Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed: That would be his touch, Unguentine’s touch deliberate, thoughtful, and devastating. I knew it. He would have saved that business card from years before for precisely that moment. Our barge most certainlyneeded no repairs, however. Not one.
Unguentine, suicide, the business card, the barge, alcoholic’s leap into the sea, bottle, grey lips, boughs dragging in sea currents. So goes the sequence, the awful chain, and between my despair at not knowing how many times I have told it and whether I shall ever finish telling it once well and decently, I do wonder about that business card, Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed, and what if in fact it had nothing to do with his death? Coincidence? The business card inserted into that gummy little gap between the glass and varnished wood frame of the pilot-house window on our ocean-going barge, inserted there casually in the summery sub-equatorial January eleven months before his death, November it was, with no connection whatsoever? Possible? For if so, then it means that my Unguentine with his flowing white hair and yellow beard that ringed his mouth like a cloud in late afternoon, it means that he left me with no message at all, no last words, no final touch other than the act of leaving itself. Can I say he died with no personal touch at all? Not even no toppling overboard with bottle to lips, navigational charts in hip pocket? Perhaps then there would be no telling what, no watery punctuation to that eventless life of his, no noise, no error; only his silence.
—from Stanley Crawford, “From Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2008).
The former. For the garden on our barge was none other than the famed Unguentine Gardens which have been watered in celebration of fireboats of all the ports of call that have them, for more than thirty years. How have I presumed to call the gardens ever mine, the great UnguentineGardens, cherchez la femme? True, I have known jealousy. I have watched the gardens grow from tiny seedlings and limp cuttings into cantilevered banks of blossoms of a brilliance such that ocean liners have deflected painstaking schedules to angle for a closer look, and applaud a fragrance from a mile off; and trees that have won prizes from councils of men accustomed to viewing nothing less mobile than dashing horses and thundering elephants, in that blood-clogged conspiracy of mammals I used to hear so much about those days. The great Unguentine Gardens, yes, who has not heard of them in their heydey of long ago when the weather was so much better than now, and now when the gardens are fallen and gone, gone in that manner too which time will prevent me from telling their story, piddling story; things grow, things die, is it. And it was Unguentine who planted the trees, forty years ago, in my flower garden on the barge at a particularly sunny latitude, in his quiet manner, before breakfast, at that dawn time when most of us are checking out our joints and searching over our bodies for the lesions and abrasions we are convinced a malign sleep has inflicted upon us, just like that, snap of the fingers, he planted a score of saplings between starting up the powerful steam-engine and weighing anchor, mending even a hole in the standard. He could be a fast worker. And did they ever grow, his trees, under the subtle guidance of brilliant feats of navigation that in the space of a year sought out four springs, four summers, four autumns, four winters, in over sixteen seas and oceans and bays and inlets north and south, in such manner that his trees grew four times faster than what was going on on land, as our barge traced upon the map a course to be envied by a winged insect in its witty feints and dodges amid swallows. Their trunks, stout and plump and shapely, in that way that comes only through sea-going cultivation; their leaves, tinted with variegated greens, spangled and iridescent, marks of their outlandish vintage through springs and autumns of a multitude of latitudes. But Where his trees flourished upwards in an orderly manner, sprouting leaves, then letting them go, things were not so easy with me and my flowers, not nearly as hardy against the incessant changes of climate. For months on end I was up all night. One can imagine. Some of the more delicate varieties I had been cultivating for years would bud, bloom and blow in less than an hour and a half, in crises of photosynthesis as we passed from precipitous springs into sudden summers, temperatures into the hundreds even at midnight. With rake and hoe and pruning shears I would scurry about, pull up wilted flowers one minute, plant more the next, and rush back and forth to my enormous compost heap, seeming end-product of all that frenetic generation and watered with my tears, my sweat, with my arms flailing away at the swarms of foreign bugs often so thick that even seagulls kept their distance, until dawn and beyond, until I might wake up to find myself blundering around our barge-garden carrying a flashlight at high noon, tool of some last night’s emergency of pollination.
I saw little of Unguentine. Forever in the pilot-house steering with sextant and calendar, marking off the days not with Xs but with questions marks, measuring the height of his growing trees by triangulation, for he never had time to visit the gardens any more. Trees, trees, I could have cut them all down, or poured motor oil on their roots, or let the burning leaves of autumn somewhere flame too high.
Often he vanished for days down the spiral staircase into the engine-room to overhaul the weary machinery, leaving me with a curt note tacked to his then-favourite aspen, the Aspen Laura-Anne, a white-limbed thing with noisy leaves: ‘A due-south drift, please, love, for a day or two, n’est-ce pas?’ And I was loyal, I was obedient, my asters be damned. When would it all end? Four-five years this went on. We fuelled by night in obscure, foetid ports where I strip-teased on the prow, ringed by candles, to mollify thin-lipped customs officials, while Unguentine whispered assignations for contraband into the lapping darkness over the stern; one week it was a case of crown jewels, another a cargo of slave babies who sang sweet songs in the depths of the hold while I leaned against partitions and wept, childless, penniless; another time, bananas. The seas, the seas, how I hated them then, and all their waters which glided us from chicanery to chicanery and in our wake, our youth, oil smears iridescent of all that might have been; but never was, never will be. Instead, we threw a great tent up over the barge, over the tops of the young trees, and conducted nautical orgies in tropical seas for bevies of wealthy yachtsmen who traded griping paramours before our very eyes, our open palms and ten per cent, and who would scramble up the tree-trunks to drape themselves nude from limbs, jeering down, and everything would be the noise of boughs cracking and leaves being stripped from twigs, nights of it, years of it. Unguentine drank; my fury went into tossing huge salads. The yachts, the gleaming motor launches, the sloops, the tern schooners with crews of twenty, they tinged our barge like ants feeding from a fat aphid day and night. We were known, we were infamous the world over, as the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, floating fleshpot, ocean-going brothel, were attributed legends, miraculous powers and bumper opium crops, all lies; and how I cursed Unguentine for dragging my name, my only now, through the mud of land and scum.
The barge, poor barge. My flower beds, nightly trampled, dwindled to frightened, dusty clumps such as cower alongside thundering highways of summer, Unguentine’s trees to bare-branched skeletons crowned with only a fringe of green, trunks protruding starkly from earth packed solid by the patter of bare feet, and squeals, the heavy breathing, rolling bodies, night after night.
I, the sad little figure, aproned and of shy eyes, who filled glasses and broadcast hors d’oeuvres, bottom nightly blued by palpitations of admirals and insipid pinches of millionaires. These were not the people I longed for, these were not my silken people of the past with their soft-spoken voices and elegant poses, gracefully tweaking the stems of fluted glasses; they were vandals all, and we a colonial island befouled and ravished by each passing ship. Once we were pursued by a floating casino jealous of our attractions, she ran aground on a reef our barge slid clanking over, though dropping propellor and rudder. Unguentine as ever improvised and on we sailed to other careers, The Mrs Unguentine retiring hastily from service in one port only to be re-launched, with paint-job and fanfare, in some other, as ocean-going rest home with international cuisine and daily sea-burials; as the last and briefly rented stand of a government in exile, that sea-sick king, his neurasthenic queen; as Les Bazaars Unguentine with high-class optical goods, duty-free and one third off; as, armed with three cannon, shrouded in the blanched guise of a canvas iceberg, nocturnal guano pirate. We made, stole, frittered millions in currencies hard and soft, courted the brink of disaster for years on end, lived in constant terror through a time of endless navigational blunders which, Unguentine claimed, were brought on by our heavy load of vegetables and plants, and sudden shifts in the climatic zones which rendered useless his maps, ambushing us with incredible situations. ‘You fool,’ I dared to say that time he sailed us plumb into an arctic sea right in midwinter and we ran aground on a submerged island of ice whose heavings and bucklings thrust the hull of the barge high up into the air until the whole thing keeled over, with a long and bitter winter spent on ice, the thirty-degree tilt at which we did everything, ate, slept, crawled, saving the gardens only by means of hastily constructed earthworks and terraces, tree props, guy wires, heated and gassed by homemade smudge pots. Once in attempting to outrun a high and vicious tidal wave, our top speed proved inadequate and we were swept up and borne along by it, surfed at high speed hall a day or more, Unguentine at the pilot wheel with eyes closed and teeth clenched and steering straight ahead, while below deck I manned the pumps against spraying leaks of the ancient iron hull; the wind ripped out hall the trees and sucked away all our chickens except the rooster, leaving us three months without a supply of fresh brown eggs, extra large. Plagues of insects we have known, chattering hordes came out of the middle of the night to munch their way across hall the garden by dawn and multiply faster than we could shoo them away; and heavy night-flying seabirds which have crashed by the flock into the trees as I have wandered about the barge by candlelight, the dull thuds and cracking limbs, the hiss of leaves being sheared from branches, and my arms thrashing about, my body socked and cannonaded clear across the lawn by those feathered carcasses.
But there came calmer seas, we came to know even bouts of respectability and glory in the Unguentine Gardens years when, refurbished, replanted, we bobbed in leisure from port to port, the paid admissions, the aquatic parades, the holding of high-minded botanical banquets and ecological conferences, all in the days when things like that could still be done. We flew the flag of a diseased republic anxious for mail-order revenue, a pretty thing depicting the Milky Way upon a field of blue, and huge, nine by twelve, entirely hand-blocked by starving peons whose government commemorated the registration of our barge by inventing the sweet-flowing River Unguentine; and who cared that it was only a flood-control channel, for it was fame and a mark, geography with all the pomp of speakers’ platforms and waving banners and idle crowds, who cared by Unguentine? Who saved the barge then? Who suddenly noticed his disappearance only minutes before he was scheduled to unveil the bronze plaque? I did. I scurried below deck, by luck. There he was, hoisting a jackhammer into position to have a fatal go at the bottom. ‘Don’t do that” I said. Thus we made it onto the map and a million multi-coloured postage stamps, though so briefly.
Little else do I remember of those fifteen-twenty years besides the sound of the waves, and seagulls, the engine, the interminable squawking of Unguentine’s all-band portable radio as he listened to weather reports in the fourteen languages he had mastered expressly for that purpose, a snatch of each, while I had only two with which to chatter myself from madness to madness, now dwindled to the tatters of one. I saw little of him then, or saw him mainly at a distance. But then one day he summoned me, it was a summer day of crystalline air that made the horizon meeting of sea and sky into a fold, a seam, an overlapping, a wire, anything, and I hung lazily about the railings, sometimes dabbing at them with paint, longing overboard for land and people, he summoned me in his manner, which was to leave a note in the path he knew would soon be mine. As I said, I was dabbing at the railings with a paintbrush. My ear pricked up when suddenly, working away at the underside of a T-joint, the hairs of my brush touched off a scratchy resonance. I leaned over. And there, now covered with the bright sienna of anti-rust paint, was a small square of paper taped to the underside of the railing pipe. I ripped it off, carefully wiped away the paint. ‘Darling, do be at the lawn at noon, eh?’ it said, the lawn being a small plot of grass in the very center of the barge and surrounded by Unguentine’s trees in such a way that we could have a spot of rural privacy even amid the commerce of a great port. I had not seen him for days though knew he was somewhere around, what with the notes, the way we moved across the ocean by fits and starts, the steam-engine sometimes running at full speed and the wind rushing through the trees, at others adrift in a practically dead calm, I knew he was still there, somewhere. Not that I wanted to see him. His summoning me no doubt meant he had some project in mind for me and I dreaded to think about what, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea. So I lolled about on the lawn and waited, for who could know what noon meant in the kind of lives we led. The sunlight flickered brightly into the depths of branches. He had planted evergreens around this little lawn, pines, fir, a redwood, some cedars, and already within so few years the spot was sunny only near noon on the equator, that particular day it was over a hundreddegrees and hidden sprinklers sprayed a fine and cooling mist all over the barge: from a distance, it was said, often we were seen as a greenish cloud, a tuberous mirage, a ship of war. I waited. The grass beneath my feet ceased quivering as the steam-engine fell silent. Moments later, something thrashed about behind the screen of evergreens. A branch cracked. Being the wife of Unguentine called for nerves of steel at times. Then silence. I was to speak only if and only when spoken to. The brush of pine needles against a hollow, metallic surface. Then, heavy, rhythmic breathing.
He declared a time of rest, twenty minutes, or so I thought he said with that especially fleshly tongue of his which prevented him from speaking distinctly and rapidly, his mouth so full of it few words ever squeezed out, that iguana-like tongue weight, so gagging. I smiled. Thus we ambled about the barge, arm in arm.
Unguentine had grown his trees in such a way that, now in their early maturity, they were capable of generating their own little climates about them no matter which way we sailed, no matter where the sun was, or moon, of what rains, the northerly side of the barge remaining so throughout all twirls of the compass and seasons beyond the decks, further, he was thus able to keep four seasons on board, in balance, moving them fore to aft, or whatever, four times a year, like swarms of bees; though we never had snow. Thus we wandered about the decks, now hot, now cold, until we reached the pilothouse where we fell to making love amid the greasy fixtures of a dismantled auxiliary generator, my eyes, my weeping eyes tracing the dark lines of that rough wood floor across the sill and beyond deck to the mirror-sheen of surface of whichever ocean we now lay upon, on a morning no mists had risen to fuzz the horizon, no mirages. Unguentine lowered the skiff and rowed us out past the fat, drooping chain of the barge’s anchor, a few hundred yards out, where we held a picnic. We embraced again. I was crying. I could hear Unguentine’s deep voice grunting something into my hair. An explosion rang out. This, I thought, could be anything. But before I knew what was happening, champagne was coursing down my throat, I was laughing, scarcely following the line sighted by his index finger, black with grease, towards our barge, his thickly murmured word: ‘Rainbow.’ How could I see through my tears? A breeze billowed over us. Then Unguentine lowered the oars. With a grace that meant to draw the surface of the water beneath us, he bent his naked back and swung his arms to and fro, soundless, and so we returned. I was still sobbing when he lifted me aboard, imprinting my body with his greasy fingerprints. That was the first time I had been off it for two years. Two years. By any calculation.
At the sound of the splash I sprang to the rail, peered overboard. Bending over a flower bed, weeding. Sweeping a deck. Such things. And now I stared down into the foam of his white splash sliding over the wound in the sea like the knitted fingers of the elderly. Then bubbles, his last globes of carbon dioxide. Free at last? So I thought, and would soon have dashed to the pilot-house to set sail on a course due-north for some great harbor where I might sell the barge for a handsome price, to live out my life on land, days; parched throat, sea legs to the end. Years and years. Packages one unwraps, then wraps up, again unwraps, brown paper, twine, excelsior, unwanted gift. But I was wrong. Suddenly out of the turquoise depths a shiny form wiggled surfacewards and shot into the air like a jumping trout, to splash back. A gaff was handy; I netted it. Inside, a note: ‘Will be back in an hour or so.’ Of course. As was sometimes his wont this time of morning, he’d gone for a plunge in his hand-made diving bell, a thing of beaten brass and capable of extraordinary depths. So I went back to what I had been doing. Swept a deck. Bent over a flower bed, weeded. Such things. Humming a resigned tune. For such were the days when Unguentine’s forty trees were grown stout and healthy enough that we could sail anywhere in the world so long as we avoided arctic ices and equatorial heats. My work was simple and fulfilling, but hard. I watered and trimmed the flower banks, raked up the leaves under the trees, gathered fallen branches to dry out on the bow for firewood, I tended the vegetable garden we had growing in a small plot aft of the lawn and which was richly fertilized by ground-up seaweed, I fished, I cooked when we tired of raw food; I mended the ancient clothes we rarely had occasion to wear; and mushrooms I grew on trays in the bilge next to the chicken coop. We had ducks, too, mallards with clipped wings; they kept down the snails. One cat, two dogs, retired port mongrels. Also a goat. From twin vines that formed a natural awning over the stern pilothouse deck, we yearly harvested grapes, pressed them, casked and drank the wine whenever we sensed from over the horizon, on a distant land, an aura of national celebration. Cheers to some people (I would murmur, our glasses colliding), some race, as they commemorate some fine hour within the sadness of history.
Unguentine was about and visible more than ever before, his darkly tanned body now striding the length of the barge to fetch a hammer and wrench— as I might press myself against a bulkhead to clear a path— now crouching on the deck wet from my waterings to secure a length of rope, lubricate a winch, assemble his latest device. Long hours he spent in the uppermost branches of the tallest tree, the fast-growing Cottonwood Elizabeth, gangly thing, with field-glasses pointed out to sea, looking over the driftwood and floating debris with which he made up the machinery of our lives, and the ships, the countless ships which often cluttered our route and menaced our navigations, and abandoned all as if sailing the seas had gone out of fashion. Indeed, no wonder, with those waves, those swells. Whenever the weather was windless and calm, Unguentine would take the skiff and row out to sea, and soon the horizons would ring and chatter under the distant detonations of the charges with which he cleansed the seas of ships and floating wrecks, sending up plumed geysers as they went down, gasping, gulping in a last indigestible drink. Single-handedly he scuttled the fleet of a great nation, taking weeks to do it; and on the decks of one tall ship he found laid out the numbered stone blocks of an historic monument which I thought I remembered seeing as a child, having eaten roasted chestnuts in its presence; if that childhood was ever mine and all that seemed to follow. From the bow half of an abandoned freighter probably broken up in a hurricane, and one of the last ships we were ever to see, he salvaged the materials for a towering salt-water distillation plant which he installed on the south side of the pilot-house with some of its solar panels hanging over the rudder, eastwards, in a most unsightly manner. But we had no choice, for the barge, grown heavy and cumbersome under its weight of vegetation, could no longer be so speedily navigated in and out of rain zones. Many times for days on end we floated through the dismal wreckage of aircraft disasters, the split-open suitcases, the dead, the limbs, the only other people we were ever then to see, and with a net between prayers we fished up a fine set of silverware, an alarm clock, a kerosene lantern, several volumes of an encyclopedia. One day, inexplicably, for the sea was like that, we came across a sturdy raft bearing a flawlessly new electric stove, refugee of some inland flood or advertisement, and Unguentine stripped it down to pieces small enough to fit through the hatchway and down the stairs to my galley where he hooked it up; the raft we took in tow as a swimming platform. Likewise we acquired deck-chairs, sofas, bedding, linen, teacups, curtains…
Leave a comment
No comments yet.